My favourite article of NewScientist’s series is Herman Daly’s. The father of modern ecological economics lashes out at the way economists ignore the source of inputs to production and the capacity of the waste sinks that we have. As he puts it, we should imagine the economy as a system within the world’s ecosystem. It takes inputs from the ecosystem and returns both useful goods and waste products back to the ecosystem. Since the ecosystem has only limited capacity for providing the inputs and processing the outputs, we should ensure that the economy does not outstrip those limits.
Thus, Daly proposes that the economy should be in a steady state of sorts. The inputs that the economy uses, and the waste outputs created, must not increase past the sustainable limits of the ecosystem. Of course, the production within the economy can still increase without limit. The only constraint upon production within the economy is our rate of technological progress. For, in Daly’s vision of the economy, production increases ony as we learn to utilise our limited resources more efficiently.
His vision certainly appears more holistic than the prevailing disregard among economists for natural ecosystems. Sure, we talk about emissions and externalities, but it is rare to hear economists really discuss ecosystems outside the economy we are used to dealing with. However, it is hard to see how we might get there. Where is the incentive to utilise the environment sustainably and cap our rate of growth? Why might we individually, or even as nations, attempt to make the transition to the steady state economy. Sadly, Daly’s vision of a world where our descendants enjoy a planet as rich and diverse as we live in today seems as far-fetched as any other utopian ideal.
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